Friday, August 21, 2009

Are You A-Going to Bartholomew Fair?

Our county fair starts this week, with judging for produce, preserves, homemade products, arts and crafts, and animals of all shapes and sizes. It’s fun, family fare. But in early September for four days in the first half of the nineteenth century in London, young ladies and gentlemen might slip away to another kind of fair entirely.

For over 700 years, Bartholomew Fair held sway as one of London’s most important summer fairs. Originally held around August 24, the date was moved in 1753 to September 3. It ran for several days just outside Aldersgate in London. The fair started as a way to sell cloth and other goods, but it became a way to have a rollicking good time.

All classes could be found there at first. The Lord Mayor of London himself opened the fair on St. Bartholomew’s Eve. He would walking in procession with the Merchant Taylors Guild to the fair, which became the chief cloth sale in England and brought in international traders as well. Besides booths for selling cloth, the fair featured sideshows with “freaks,” prize fights, concerts, circus acts like wire walkers and acrobats, puppets shows, and even wild animal exhibits. As late as 1830, more than 200 booths for toys and gingerbread crowded the grounds and nearby streets. Young gentlemen whose parents would have been appalled at their behavior disguised themselves as servants just to get to play at the fair.

By 1844, however, the fair had outgrown its humble beginnings. A London visitor guide warns tourists “Bartholomew Fair presents a picture of . . . boisterous exuberance chiefly consisting of low apprentices, servant maids, the working classes of the lowest order, a very small sprinkling of decent people, few and far between, together with an innumerable herd of thieves, vagabonds, prostitutes, and pickpockets.”

In 1840, city authorities started making it difficult for the fair, first by jacking up the booth rental prices and then by limiting the fair to one day. The number of booths and activities continued to dwindle until the 1850s, when city authorities refused to allow it to happen because it “encouraged debauchery and public disorder.” Bartholomew Fair was proclaimed for the last time in 1855.

Me? I just go for the Elephant Ears.

And Sara from DBR visits Nineteen Teen for the history, and she won a fan! Sara, go to my website and send me a note on your address. I’ll get the fan out to you shortly! Remember to comment, all! There are two more posts in August and two more chances to win!


QNPoohBear said...

I love the images! When I spent a semester in London we were told about Bartholomew Fair and its' crazy reputation. We saw the famous play by Ben Jonson updated to the 20th century. I remember it being weird but entertaining. It doesn't sound like a place proper 19th c. young ladies should be going.

Addie said...

Sounds like the first couple fairs would've been lovely! Our state fair has moved a bit too far away to travel to.